26 July 2023

There is a place for young people in Parliament – but they should remain the exception, not the rule


Both our youngest and oldest ever Prime Ministers Britain were called William. One introduced income tax, the other hoped to abolish it. One died at the age of 46, facing down Napoleon, after living on a diet of several bottles of port a day; the other spent his spare time translating Homer or redeeming prostitutes. Both Pitt the Younger and Gladstone are excellent namesakes for a young politico.

Pitt came to office aged 24 – only six months or so older than I am now. That he could do so is not only a testament to how much weirder the 18th-century political system was compared to today’s, but the quality of the man himself. Being the son of a former Prime Minister was useful. But he was highly educated – for a Cambridge man – and an outstanding mind and orator.

Gladstone, by contrast, went on a rather extensive political journey between entering Parliament aged 23 and departing from his final premiership at 84. The man whose face now sternly guards the entrance to the National Liberal Club, a name synonymous with liberalism, reform, and Home Rule, began his political life as the highest of High Tories. It was like a Corbynista retiring as John Hayes.

That I mention both these titans is not only to highlight what a wonderful thing it can be to have a Prime Minister called William. It is because the age of our politicians has been much in the news: first with the election of 25-year-old Labourite Keir Mather for Selby and Ainsty, and then with the elevation of former Boris Johnson aide Charlotte Owen to the Lords at 29, making her the youngest ever life peer. 

Queue much harrumphing and hypocrisy. Johnny Mercer was quick to label Mather an ‘Inbetweener’ – but has remained strangely silent on the success of a little-known former bag carrier of his ex-boss. Similarly, Iain Dale sought to deflect away the outrage at Owen’s appointment by pointing out Labour’s silence about Mather’s age – forgetting, of course, that Mather was at least elected.

The case against such young politicians is obvious. In both cases, their careers seem to have followed a gilded path from university, to working in politics, to entering Parliament. Young Mather studied politics at Oxford, dabbled with the Union, and then worked for Wes Streeting. Owen did the rounds as a parliamentary assistant and Spad.

Cue muttering about how they have never experienced the ‘real world’. How can these youthful legislators understand the country they are now supposed to be helping rule? How can they know what it is like to run a business or raise a family? Being interested in politics at such a young age already marks them out as odd – barely half of 18-24 year olds turned out in 2019.

And yet the case for youth is equally strong. That so many are apathetic about politics is no surprise when 45% of them expect to be worse off than their parents. Wealthy retirees, fattened on the teat of the triple lock, are holding back today’s young people from accessing the same opportunities they enjoyed. Theirs is a voice that needs hearing in Parliament.

So if young people haven’t got a great deal of ‘life experience’, it is because our country’s political economy endlessly holds them back. None of that is going to change until more are elected and appointed and able to make that case to their new colleagues. After all, the age of the average MP is in their 50s, and the average peer is in their 70s. A little age diversity is no bad thing. 

Yet even as I cheer on my fellow youngsters in fighting the good fight for all of us that want to get on the housing ladder, I would urge caution. Yes, many a fine politician – Pitt or Gladstone, or Winston Churchill, Roy Jenkins, or the late Charles Kennedy – entered Parliament at a young age. But today’s politicians are of a rather different calibre. 

Already, the grim hours, public scrutiny, and underwhelming pay involved in being a politician means that an increasingly large number of talented people are choosing to opt out of politics. The House of Commons increasingly resembles a counselling session for former local councillors. No longer can someone go to the City in the morning, and then vote from the afternoon long into the night.

Couple that with the habitual grade inflation and issues with numeracy and literacy associated with modern education, and one gets the unfortunate impression that any young person going into politics is unlikely to be the cream of the crop. Many are undoubtedly impressive. But I know a fair few half-decent OUCA or Oxford Union Presidents who wouldn’t touch politics with a barge pole. 

People under the age of 30 elected in the last decade or so tend either to have been loud-mouthed ideologues, or to now be opting out of politics altogether. One doesn’t necessarily have to call for a reintroduction of national service to suggest they might have gained a bit more experience of hardship or challenging circumstances if they had spent longer outside of SW1.  

There is therefore a place for young people in Parliament, and it is for the voters to decide if they are up to scratch as representatives. But they should remain the exception, not the rule – for their sakes, and the country’s. 

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.